Teaching Notes: To see or not to see – where are our students?

We value connection with our students. In class we share space with them, make eye contact, read visual cues and sense the feeling in the room. We welcome them in person and on FLO. For many of us, prior to the emergency remote teaching needed for COVID-19, those primary interactions were in person. Connections were reinforced by informal chatter both with students and between students before, during and after class. Last semester many of those connections had been established pre-COVID but this semester we faced the reality of trying to establish connections entirely online. Many staff noted that they felt somewhat removed from their students and were struggling to forge those connections so vital to support student learning. These feelings seem exacerbated when students do not turn on their cameras during class.

Cameras on or off?
Teaching staff have mixed views about requiring camera use. Some are fine with them left off and try to work around it and some require cameras on. However, there are a myriad of reasons students choose not to use their cameras which can include equity issues or personal choice. Reasons may include:

  • poor bandwidth (e.g. due to internet/mobile plan or physical location)
  • broken or inadequate technology (e.g. glitching)
  • not having a camera (or poor quality)
  • study environment (e.g. some students may study from a location other than home where it’s not appropriate to use a camera)
  • unaccommodating or unsafe home lives (e.g. household members in the background)
  • dislike of being seen on camera (e.g. body image or appearance issues).

For these reasons, it may be best to not require camera usage. However, there may be sound pedagogical reasons where it is necessary. Perhaps students have a group assignment to work on where relationships need to be formed with each other; perhaps they are engaged in a virtual work integrated learning activity where connections need to be made with industry partners or clients. If cameras are needed, inform students well beforehand so they can plan to be in a suitable location, with appropriate equipment and access to participate and engage fully with their cameras on.

Managing when cameras are off
So, can we connect with our students if we can’t see them and, if they don’t speak up in discussions, we can’t hear them either? Here are some strategies you can try to help you and your students feel connected:

Arrive early
You might do this with an on campus class by coming early – you can also join in or start informal conversations with students online. You can answer questions students may not wish to ask when others are present and just generally listen to see what students are chatting about.

Keep your camera on
Even when displaying your other audio-visual material, if the students can see you whilst you are talking, they can see your enthusiasm, hand movements and facial expressions. This helps them to remain engaged and allows the teaching to become more personal despite the online environment.

Use body language
Don’t be afraid to gesticulate with your hands and be energetic and dynamic when teaching in an online environment. It is easy to become less animated when talking to a camera (especially if you can’t see your students’ faces) but using ‘normal’ body language makes the teaching more interesting from the students’ perspective than if you drift off into a monotone.

Avoid multi-tasking
If you are teaching, teach. Switch off your email and concentrate on the task at hand. You would do this in the on campus classroom so do it online. Students can sense when you aren’t fully present and silences from you being distracted can seem longer online than they do on campus. Aside from anything else, there can be more to try and coordinate when teaching online (e.g. having the correct URLs open, coordinating breakout groups, finding your lost sound for a video…) so it’s best to avoid any other distractions.

Ask for student photos
If students upload an image of themselves, even if their cameras are off everyone can at least see what they look like so there are no blank avatar images or black screens.

Suggest a background image (if applicable)
For students who are uncomfortable about their study environment, using a background image may be useful.

Keeping students engaged
Even using these strategies, we still don’t necessarily feel reassured that students are engaged, especially if they don’t ask questions or readily engage in large group discussions. Here are some strategies you can try to keep students engaged:

Use groupwork
Collaborate has breakout group options and some staff also use Microsoft Teams in conjunction with Collaborate for small groupwork. Where students may not wish to use their camera in the larger group, some may be happy to turn it on in a smaller group environment. This can also be a safer place to engage with others.

Use FLO tools to check student understanding
FLO has many tools you can use to check your students learning. These can be used synchronously during class or asynchronously between classes. Collaborate also has a polling function you can use. The advantage of live polling is that you can see if the number of responses match the number of students ‘present’ in the online room. It also helps keep students engaged in active learning, rather than just sitting and listening. You could also randomly but routinely ask for an emoji response in the chat function from students (e.g. to check where their energy levels are at, their understanding) which also serves to see if they are still engaged (and there!)

Make it fun
Sometimes making the most of the home study environment can be engaging. Have students share their pets, play a musical instrument, dress up or rebadge the class as ‘catching up for a coffee’. Introducing some informality, games and sharing can help forge those connections and also engage the students in a different way than we might face-to-face.

Even though we are part-way through semester, it’s not too late to forge those connections by mixing it up and trying something new. Even something as simple as having music playing before the class starts can be a conversation starter.

Further reading: Dear Professors: Don’t Let Student Webcams Trick You


Aldrich, H 2020, Cameras and Masks: Sustaining Emotional Connections with Your Students in an Age of COVID19, viewed 21 September 2020 < https://howardaldrich.org/2020/07/cameras-and-masks-sustaining-emotional-connections-with-your-students-in-an-age-of-covid19/>

Hagenauer, G & Volet, SE 2014, ‘Teacher–student relationship at university: an important yet under-researched field’, Oxford Review of Education, 40:3, 370-388, DOI: 10.1080/03054985.2014.921613

Kotevska, L & Kean, J 2020, Welcoming students to class: Lessons from ICPU intensives, Teaching@Sydney, viewed 21 September 2020 <https://educational-innovation.sydney.edu.au/teaching@sydney/welcoming-students-to-class-lessons-from-icpu-intensives/>

Sedova, K, Sedlacek, M, Svaricek, R, Majcik, M, Navratilova, J, Drexlerova, A, Kychler, J & Salamounova, Z 2019, ‘Do those who talk more learn more? The relationship between student classroom talk and student achievement’, Learning and Instruction, 63, 101217,  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.learninstruc.2019.101217


Cassandra Hood

Academic Developer – CILT

Posted in
Teaching Notes

Leave a Reply