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Avoiding faceless Zoom

Posted on: August 25, 2021

The last year has seen the rise of Zoom for teaching and learning. It has also seen proponents of faceless Zoom.

Photo by Blue Bird on Pexels.com

Faceless Zoom is allowing students to not have their cameras on. A teacher might do this is to respect the privacy of his/her students. 

Zoom captures what happens in the students’ backgrounds. Since some students might not have conducive learning environments outside the classroom, what happens in the background could become distracting to everyone. These backgrounds also provide insights on the students’ socioeconomic statuses and these can heighten divides.

One way to mitigate this issue is for students to use artificial backgrounds or to blur their backgrounds in Zoom. However, these backgrounds interfere with movements or demonstrations on camera. Video algorithms attempt to hide anything that is not a relatively still head and shoulder, so anything that you or your students hold up will get blurred or hidden.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

This is another reason for faceless Zoom. Stanford reported four factors that could contribute to Zoom fatigue (my summary). One possible contributing factor was seeing so many faces so much of the time. The same article went into why this might be psychologically and physiologically tiring.

But I counter with this: If you are only conducting classes online where faces are optional, you might be doing it wrong. 

When are faces optional? When you do not really need them, e.g., teacher-centred and non-interrupted lectures. What is wrong with such lectures? See the image quote below.

The danger of lectures is that they create the illusion of teaching for teachers, and the illusion of learning for learners.

Zoom need not and should not be faceless. As educators, we should create the need and desire to see and work with others. 

This goes beyond the technological mitigation of replacing real backgrounds with digital ones. Such a strategy is quick and convenient — some old-school folks might call this technical savvy — but it does not address the desire to remain faceless.

Students can remain faceless in a large Zoom class or lecture. They have no incentive to show their faces because they are talked to but not listened to. They are not asked for comments, questions, or feedback. If they are, such interventions are so sporadic as to not require constant face time.

Lectures are not just teacher-centric because they focus on the one-way flow of information. They can be teacher-centric in Zoom if the teacher insists on seeing student faces just to get affirmation, e.g., nodding heads.

But even the best lecturer will subject students to Zoom fatigue of a different sort — one lecture after another. You might as well rely on a playlist YouTube videos instead. Then students can watch asynchronously at least.

We can avoid lectures and faceless Zoom with pedagogical redesign. I do not mean lesson designs that require students to show presence. This is administrative attendance taking or gamified being-there. I am about lessons that are designed for being present.

What circumstances require students to be present? Lessons that value their queries and inputs. Classes that are dominated by cooperation or collaboration. Sessions that are driven by problem-seeking, problem-solving, peer teaching, and meaningful project work.

The easiest thing to do is identifying sessions where these approaches can lead lesson design. The most difficult is changing teacher mindsets towards taking that first easy step.

3 Responses to "Avoiding faceless Zoom"

Muhammad Imran: Was nodding to all of this. Though HBL kicked off in Apr 20, many Ts are still just porting what they “normally” do in class i.e. didactic teaching, online. Anecdotally, JCs seem to be reliant on live lectures, even giving demerit points to those who don’t turn their cameras on

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Dr Ashley Tan: Indeed. I’d wager we are the minority for pointing out that such porting does all of us a disservice. I’d go further to say that it is pedagogically irresponsible.
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