Stop Making Students Stare at the Screen

Ah, Zoom. How I love thee. But to those who use Zoom to teach, I say:

So, I’ve already written a bit about Zoom, like how to Zoom with a smile. And I remember the beginning of quarantine, when I first tried all cameras off, feeling like the class didn’t feel the same unless I could see all my students. “Gallery view,” that “Hollywood Squares” grid of student faces with eyes at half-mast, was the best next thing to an in-person classroom. But as I head into the new semester, my new feeling is we’re doing it wrong. Plenty of folks have written about Zoom fatigue. So, let’s take a minute — before the teaching with technology SWAT teams swoop in and think about what is BEST for our humanity.

Before we begin, think about who is most invested in you video recording your course content — especially in a context that records the attendance (and attention) of the students. Now hold on, those same people, those same institutions (outside of the makers of corporate teleconference ware) also have mission statements that put learning above all. So, with that in mind, let’s work toward that higher goal.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about these things in The UnZoomable Course, a class I’m co-teaching with Margaret Rhee and SA Smythe for UnderAcademy College.

Why we shouldn’t ZOOM every moment of every class

First, of all, who thought it was a good idea that we stare at screen for a class session? Didn’t we used to tell these same kids (or were told) not to have so much screen time? Now we’re upset if our students look away?

Second, who says we have to lecture via streaming video WHILE staring at our students or ourselves or our screens. Zoom and other teleconferencing software put our own image in front of us. It’s like putting a mirror in front of a yoga instructor so they can stare at themselves. Kinda goes against the whole ethos of thing.

For more on this particular kind of fail…

Third, since when are we so insecure that we require continuous eye contact with anyone we’re teaching? Why must we control student eyeballs?

I’ve learned just as much — if not more — when not looking directly at someone talking as when looking at them. When the digital screen becomes the everything surface (classroom, chalkboard, notebook), we’ve lost our role of space in thought. We need to think about ways to enable and encourage students to look elsewhere.

Fourth, when in real life, as I like to call it, do we ever stare at the eyes of ALL of the people we are addressing at once? There’s a reason lecture halls are darkened. Professors or Digressors or speakers need to concentrate. And to be honest, students need their sleep.

Just putting this out there….

I think we’re doing it wrong. Really wrong. And we’ll find out just how wrong soon… when new learning and teaching paradigms emerge.

So here’s a thought: Why don’t we turn off our cameras? Stick Zoom in your pocket. Put on your earphones.* You can be with your students without watching them. And stop recording classes. Or at least record only the content parts. I understand there’s a question about time zones and access, but recorded conversations are not helpful to teaching discussion based classes. No one needs a record of their bad ideas.

Note: I realize this raises issues regarding learning styles and accessibility, so please, take that into consideration first. Perhaps, this call is to balance out the tyranny of the visual that is currently rolling over 25 years of online teaching innovation.

writer/researcher of emerging digital writing forms. Prof of Writing @ USC, Dir. of Com. for ELO, Dir. of HaCCS Lab