Camera's Off: The Importance of Privacy in Virtual Learning

When I logged on to my first class this semester, I was abruptly asked in front of 30 other students to turn my camera on. I politely refused, and when pressed further, I gave no reason other than that I didn’t want to. Within 10 minutes, two other students had also turned off their cameras. As we move through this online semester, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether or not students should be required to turn their cameras on during class. As someone who’s in classes, and who’s a student leader in conversation with other students, I believe that to force students to use their cameras is to actively exclude students.

There are various reasons why a student might not want to turn their camera on. I rent a bedroom in a house with four other students, which means that when I call into class, I’m doing so from the space where I sleep, eat, work, study, play games, call my friends, and spend most of my waking hours. This is the case for a lot of students; there is no longer a separation of physical spaces, or the possibility of going to one place to work or study and another to relax. When I turn on my camera during class, I’m showing everyone everything. Keeping my camera off is a way to separate my spaces and ensure my privacy. 


Other students may have small children who they don’t want to come on screen (especially if professors record their lectures), or a partner who likes to walk around in little to no clothing. Students, especially those in rural or northern locations, may not have access to high-speed internet; this can hurt video quality, since cameras use more data than audio only. Maybe they live with body dysmorphia or other health concerns that make being on screen uncomfortable or inaccessible—especially since on Zoom, you can’t tell when people are looking at you. Maybe they just have Zoom fatigue. 


In in-person conversations, we pay attention to more than just the words that someone uses; we also pay attention to their tone, body language, and other non-verbal cues. On Zoom, these non-verbal cues are missing, even if someone’s video is on—but we still subconsciously look for these cues. So as students, when we have our cameras on, we put out these cues subconsciously and then look for them in others, even though we can’t read them. That’s what leads to Zoom fatigue. In essence, we put more in than we get out, all while we’re trying to pay attention to whatever lecture is happening. 


You may have noticed that, in my opening story, I didn’t tell my professor any of the reasons I’ve outlined here. That was on purpose. I, like all students, have a right to privacy— my business is my business. I shouldn’t have to explain my situation to a professor (especially not in front of my entire class) and wait for their permission to secure privacy in my own home.


I understand that it can often be difficult for professors to teach to black screens, especially if they can’t gauge whether or not students understand the topic. However, confirming that students understand lecture content cannot come at the expense of students’ privacy rights. Letting students attend classes with their cameras off means that they can learn wherever they are in whatever way makes them feel comfortable and secure. Post-secondary students are adults with the capacity to make the right decisions for ourselves and our learning. Trust us.