Friday, June 25, 2021

Why Students Turn Off their Cameras in Online Classes

Screen with 25 photos of Dr. Z I HATE it when my students turn off their cameras in class!

I didn't select teaching as my role in life to talk to a bunch of boxes on the screen.  I want to talk to my students and see their responses as we venture into new ideas and experiences.

Unfortunately, when we had to move our classes online, educators met with a number of students who didn't turn on their cameras. I have spent the past year presenting OK Zoomer webinars for Higher-Ed and K-12 teachers.  The #1 question they have is "How can I get my students to turn on their cameras?"

Good question.  There are a plethora of solutions. Some answer that question by mandating students to keep their cameras active. This may be unfair because it is an invasion of their privacy.  Other educators build empathy with their students by sharing important it is for them to have the opportunity to have eye contact with their students.  Some instructors give extra credit points to students who show themselves.  

I have been interested in learning about why students turn off their cameras.  This Spring semester, I taught 100 students in three sections through Zoom. At the end of the semester, I asked them to share their reasons for turning off their cameras. I presented them with a list of 14 options and then provided a place where they could provide other reasons. They could select as many reasons as they wanted.

Reasons Why Students Turn Off Their Cameras*

The results were quite interesting.  Out of my 100 students, 69 of them answered the survey. Here are the results of this survey (n=69): 

Survey Results: Why Students Turn Off their Cameras

I have broken these results into 6 groups: Self-Conscious, Technical, Considering Others, Status Quo, Other Activity, and Privacy:

Self-Conscious: Two of the top 3 reasons given indicated that the students are Self-conscious. They didn't want others to see them and they didn't like seeing themselves. They were concerned about being judged. 

Other Activity: They wanted to engage in an activity other than class. Thirty-nine percent of them turned them off because they were eating. That was considerate (especially in my 8:00 class). You will note that the last two reasons involved them getting involved in something else. 

Technical: Technology tends to fail. Almost 1/3 of them had internet problems. Some had webcam problems. The interesting part of this is that I had students contact me apologizing about how they couldn't use their cameras because of technical problems. 

Consider Others: Surprisingly, about 1/5 of the students turned them off because they were concerned that they would distract their classmates or their professor.  The funny thing is that I enjoyed seeing my students and turning them off distracted me.

Status Quo: Everyone else had turned theirs off, so why shouldn't I?  Why did they feel that it should be the status quo?  Did the teacher say it was OK?  Was the class delivered at one-way communication so it didn't seem like they needed to be part of the discussion?  Did the students get together and decide to keep their cameras off?  Don't know.

Privacy: Should students be required to share their surroundings? One-quarter of them didn't want to show other people and 1/5 didn't want to show their surroundings.  These are significant concerns that could be considered.

How Can We Use These Results?

A preliminary analysis indicates that the most popular reasons that our students turn off their cameras have to do with them being Self-Conscious. While it is understandable that students are concerned about how they look and what others think about them, we need to make their learning environment safe and inviting to reduce their anxiety.

The Other Activity reasons were interesting. It is fully understandable for students to turn off their cameras when they are eating. Finding the "not paying attention" reason at the bottom of the pile was a surprise. While that reason is high on my list when I turn off my camera, it wasn't the case with these students. These ratings may indicate that they were learning in an interactive environment. 

Technical problems are everywhere. They have little to do with attitude and everything to do with happenstance. While some situations are unavoidable (e.g., poor web access in the rural areas), other reasons may just be computer problems that can be corrected. (I wrote another posting about Strategies to Optimize Your Zoom Bandwidth earlier.)

Considering Others' distractions is unique. This may indicate an empathy that has developed in a positive community. 

The Status Quo has to do with expectations. The teacher must share their vision for the learning environment with students so they will know how to perform. There is great debate about whether an educator can REQUIRE students to turn on their cameras. Looking into students' homes may be an invasion of privacy. Some teachers encourage their students to share their cameras by: having theme or color days where they dress accordingly; encouraging students to create virtual backgrounds to support the course content; or having interactive discussions that encourage face-to-face interaction. 

Privacy was a big concern when students were forced into online learning. We must pay attention to situations where students don't want to share their home life or companions. It leads us to the problem with requiring students to show their faces. Educators would be more effective if they worked with the student to remedy the situation (e.g., broadcast from the library) than forcing embarassment.

This is Only the Beginning

I am sharing these results with you because it is one of the most often asked questions on educators' minds. I will be analyzing this deeper and submitting it to a refereed journal. Please leave your comments about the research design, my comments, or how these relate to your experiences.

I NEED Your Help Higher Education Educators!!

I am interested in expanding this research to explore students' reactions in other classes.   I am looking for 10 higher education educators who would like to join me.  It may be as simple as having your students complete the survey or we can discuss how this would best address your needs.

Please contact me at Dr. Z with your subject and teaching situation. Put Camera Research in the subject line. 

Have a Great Week!


* This article was edited on 9/16/21 to add the Privacy category.  This was suggested by some readers and it was a valid suggestion.  The numbers were not changed, only the category.


  1. Hi Dr. Z!

    Thank you for sharing this research on why students do not turn on their cameras. We conducted a similar anonymous survey with intro bio lab students and also found personal appearance to be the most cited reason for not using cameras. Another similarity is a low number that said they were doing other things. We also found that underrepresented minorities (in science and engineering, as defined by the NSF) were more likely to indicate concern for other people and their environment being seen behind them. This suggests that mandating camera use may have a negative effect that disproportionately harms URMs. I like how you categorized the different reasons, something we did not do in our initial study. You can read our study here:

    An interesting phenomenon related to camera use is virtual background (VB) use. Our study and your study have both found that social norms play a role in camera use, but they also seem to play a role in VB use. If a computer can handle VBs, it seems that using them is an obvious solution to being concerned about people and places being visible in the background. However, there seems to be a trend among students to NOT use VBs. I've even seen VB use wane among my colleagues. I think that figuring out what influences VB use by students is another interesting research question.

    Dr. Frank Castelli
    (Cornell University)

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  3. Professor,

    As a current student at UNI, I believe your research on why students turn off their zoom cameras is accurate. Often, it is because we are self-conscious about our appearance, situation, background, etc. Our personal homes, environment, and appearance are a reflection of ourselves and this can sometimes be stressful to display to classmates. You are also correct that multitasking during class can play into students not turning on zoom cameras. If we are snacking on a granola bar (as we would be doing during in-person class possibly) we feel as though it is more respectful to the rest of the class if we do not show ourselves doing so. I for one do not like being a distraction or the center of attention during a zoom call. This was a very interesting post to read and I found it very insightful. I am not a fan of learning through zoom and would much rather be engaging in the classroom. I have been told by many of my peers that they feel the same. Often, black zoom screens are indicative of our disengagement. In-person learning helps us thrive!

    Brooke Berns


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