Week 7: Faces on/off

The idea to count how often my colleagues use their cameras during online meetings struck me during our last tutorial when few people showed their faces. Since the phenomenon of pervasive online teaching is relatively young, ‘Zoom ethics’ has not yet formed to the full, so the rules of online behavior differ from teacher to teacher, from institution to institution.   

In my working setting, learners are highly recommended to turn on their cameras in the virtual language classroom. Facial expressions enable the teacher to receive immediate non-verbal feedback, check engagement and sentiment, and react accordingly. Speaking to 10 frozen avatars is no fun at all.  

However, there are many arguments against introducing mandatory video policies in education. Recent research describes a wide range of reasons why video conferencing can be uncomfortable/disadvantageous to students.  At the same time, little is mentioned about learners who are hiding behind the avatars because they want to use their phone in parallel with a lesson or enjoy their morning coffee. Does such behavior  influence engagement and learning outcomes? I believe it does. Nevertheless, keeping your camera on doesn’t guarantee students’ engagement or success either.

How can these data be used in teaching: for empowering or controlling teachers? On the one hand, looking into why students use/don’t use cameras during online lessons can be beneficial, as it may help the teacher understand the learners’ contexts better. However, it is noteworthy that these data don’t provide any ‘whys ’, and the sense-making is still on the teacher. On the other, using these data as an indicator of students’ participation/engagement to measure instructors’ efficiency is contentious. First off, because of the superficial nature of these data. Unfortunately, we can’t be sure that it will never happen, since this aspect of online behavior is very easy to put into numbers and employ in more sophisticated algorithms.

2 thoughts on “Week 7: Faces on/off

  1. Very interesting idea for your data visualization. And yes, having the camera on or off in the educational context is a very contentious issue. When Zoom become highly popular last year, and some people started asking questions about its data collection and privacy practices, it became quite clear the Zoom company had never thought too hard about these issues. It’s still unclear to me what exactly Zoom could do with huge quantities of face data, but there are organizations claiming face data could be used in education to identify students’ emotional state and their “engagement” in activities. These data may be superficial as you note, but many organizations see them as valuable in some unspecified way. Perhaps, by collecting our face data now, they will identify new features or products later. This may raise challenges to your comment that “the sense-making is still on the teacher” — what if, through gradual shifts, the sense-making authority in the classroom moves to an automated computer system? This is a much wider issue than face data of course. Big data advocates claim that data analytics can do much more accurate “sense-making” than embodied humans, and are eagerly seeking to embed their automated sense-makers in schools and universities as “augmentations” to the human educator.

  2. I see your point, Ben. ‘Outsourcing’ (Van Dijk) sense-making in the educational context to technology can be dangerous and even destructive. It reminds me of numerous examples given by O’Neil in her book ‘Weapons of Math Destruction’ where algorithms were instrumental in life-changing decisions.

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