1 Chapter 1: I Can’t See You? Ethical Considerations of Web Camera Use in Online Environments

Marcia Steeves

In the spring of 2020, COVID-19 initiated what will likely become referenced in the future as the great pivot to online learning. Globally, students of all ages saw their physical schools closed and all educational services moved online. Due to this rapid transition, many educators had limited time for reflection. They were unable to move beyond mere substitution, as referenced in Puentedura’s (2015) substitution, augmentation, modification, and redefinition, or SAMR, model, in their attempt to quickly replicate what their students had been experiencing in their face-to-face classrooms in the online environment.

This chapter delves into one aspect of technology integration that has arisen as a concern during this critical shift in educational delivery: the use of web cameras in the online environment. With the integration of technology in our lives, it behooves us to stop and take stock of the ethical considerations of that integration and understand the risks and benefits of that use. A consequentialist perspective (Farrow, 2016) requires us to contemplate a balance of ethical considerations and to come to an understanding that the consequences of a stand for or against camera use must be considered to achieve the most favourable results.

Full Disclosure

Since the spring of 2020, many educators have shared images and personal reflections from their virtual classroom camera experiences in social media posts, and the topic of camera use has gained broader public attention through news coverage. The range of experiences have varied, from Zoom bombings to feelings of loneliness as educators found themselves lecturing to empty screens (Reed, 2020). The resulting comments and feedback, though sometimes comedic, have also resulted in two diametrically opposed positions on whether students’ cameras should be on or off, centred mainly on concerns for student engagement, equitable access, and concern for student privacy.

This is not a new issue. Student engagement has been a topic of pedagogical discussion in online learning for several years. Online instruction was primarily text and audio based (Barnes, 2016; DeWaard, 2016a; Weller, 2020b; Young, 2020) until video began to be used, both synchronously and asynchronously, as one approach to increasing teaching and social presence, as described by the community of inquiry framework (Garrison, 2017). Physical classrooms, and to a greater extent the buildings, labs, libraries, and halls of academic institutions, naturally present a number of opportunities for communication and wayfinding, such as room and directional signage, for students and educators. Online classes require more deliberate attention and planning to build communication and engagement (Weller, 2020a, 2020b). With the pandemic pivot to online teaching in 2020, many educators struggled as they moved their face-to-face pedagogical practices to online environments.

Many of today’s courses are built upon constructivist learning theory, relying heavily upon student interaction with faculty and peers as learners construct knowledge through scaffolded student-centred learning (Brown, 2005; Weller, 2020a). On top of this, student engagement is used as a feedback indicator for both the learning being achieved and the facilitation of that learning by educators in face-to-face classrooms. Educators in online classrooms have found themselves searching for the same feedback indicators they had in the face-to-face classroom, like body language and facial expression. Many teachers and institutions simply opted for requiring students to turn on their cameras during synchronous video sessions in an attempt to reinstate the familiar feedback loops. This has been implemented in a variety of ways, from school board directives to parents, mandated expectations from the classroom teacher, incentivization through participation marks, to simple requests (Finders & Muñoz, 2021). Physiologically, however, it is nearly impossible to cognitively interpret body language and facial expression from a screen full of video images while at the same time delivering content and attempting to interact with students.

Some experts would suggest that allowing students to choose to have their camera on or off comes “at the cost of student engagement and teacher effectiveness, sacrificing the ability of all involved to live and respond in the moment” (Bui, 2021, para. 8). However, this directive implies that a blind educator or student could never fully engage or be effective in a physical classroom or an online environment (J. Bond, personal communication, January 27, 2021). Others report that the intrusiveness of cameras into the private lives of students’ and educators’ homes (or lack thereof) puts participants at risk and furthers the digital divide between the haves and the have-nots (Goodis, 2021; Raicu, 2020). Thus, a requirement that students have their cameras on may come at a cost.

Privacy, Data Security, and Informed Consent

In a discussion with Dr. Jeremy Bond (personal communication, January 27, 2021), director of instructional development at Central Michigan University, he noted that many educators are struggling to connect with their students via cameras and not recognizing the potential risk of camera use to themselves and their students. Contemplate for a moment what an educator might see: a student smoking a cigarette, changing a shirt, or sitting in a car in a parking lot somewhere to access the internet. And consider what students see through the teacher’s camera. It is these potential risks that need to be evaluated and given more thorough contemplation.

Some students and educators may be able to modify their camera view, by constructing a “clean” space or attempting to use built-in digital backgrounds (which tend to require additional bandwidth and are known to disappear) to create at least a small sense of protection by not sharing their entire private space. Many others simply do not have this luxury of choice, either due to living arrangements or bandwidth issues. Reed (2020) called this “visual overshooting” (para. 5) where the viewer (or viewers) sees more than just the participant.

This video intrusion can present a significant breach of privacy and risks exposing a participant’s life through a view into their private space and individual behaviours. It can reveal private aspects of a student’s life, from needing to log in from a public Wi-Fi access point to sharing a room with a number of other family members (Miller, 2020). Cyberbullying has made students all too aware of the ability of other classmates to record or take unwanted pictures that can be used inappropriately on social media (Miller, 2020). Neurodiverse students might struggle to sit still (Duncan, 2021; Miller, 2020) and may not want classmates to be aware they are pacing to help them listen. Exposing a participant’s socioeconomic situation, behavioural characteristics, or disabilities has the potential to create divides that affect the social dynamics of a course and increase levels of anxiety among students. Finders and Muñoz (2021) also pointed out that enforcing the use of cameras may even be deemed racist, as it is a position that does not take into consideration cultural sensitivities, where students may have cultural reasons for not exposing their private spaces to those outside of their immediate family.

The topic of consent, for the most part, has been limited to the recording of synchronous video conferencing lectures, and policies across the country are being developed or further honed to ensure institutions are in compliance with protection of privacy regulations around the storage and collection of recordings (Goodis, 2021).

In the spring of 2020, there was little or no choice for the vast majority of teachers and students when it came to the shift to remote teaching and learning. Now, in many cases, students are learning in a hybrid environment, and may not have the choice to learn in a physical classroom given current health regulations and limitations on class sizes. A review of acceptable use policies and student codes of conduct from K-12 boards and postsecondary institutions indicates there are few that provide explicit guidance specific to the use of cameras or expected behaviours in online classrooms (Durham District School Board, 2019; Fleming College, 2013; Hanover School Division, 2017; University of British Columbia, n.d.; University of Calgary, 2019). Moving forward, there is time and opportunity to ensure that students, and parents when necessary, are made aware of the expectations and requirements for camera use and to ensure that consent is obtained where needed. Student consent should not be a blanket check-off; instead, consent should be specific to classes where there are clear learning outcomes that require the use of cameras—for instance, public speaking, drama, art, music, or physical education lessons. Institutions should provide policy development specific to video use in the remote classroom in advance, through course pages or outlines. Doing so will allow students to make informed decisions in selecting online or hybrid courses, as will reviewing accurate information about technology requirements and expectations, and the engagement options available to them should they have concerns with camera use.

Educational Integrity: Avoiding Harm and Minimizing Risk

To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin. (hooks, 1994, p. 13)

Further application of a consequentialist perspective, from Farrow’s (2016) ethical framework, requires the acknowledgement that even if there may not be an intent to harm, risk still may exist. Today’s students live in a world of surveillance. To those aware of the collection and use of their personal data through websites, services, and other electronic systems, this knowledge can create a heightened sense of being watched, leading to fear and anxiety (see Luinstra, this volume). “The constant fear of being watched can create mental health problems and impair normal academic performance in students” (Romano, 2021, para. 14). Research on the effects of surveillance, whether hidden or open, has found it causes anxiety within the brain, changing behaviour and processing, sometimes without the full knowledge of the individual (Rogers, 2018; Romano, 2021). This finding is supported by numerous social media posts observed from January to March 2021, where students and educators described feeling hypervigilant, uneasy, and self-conscious when their cameras are on.

Prior to the onset of COVID-19, an estimated two-thirds of students had a history of trauma, and the effects on learning have been well documented (Costa, 2020). Trauma impacts “focus, concentration, decision-making, time management, self-regulation, and various higher-order thinking skills” (Costa, 2020, para. 4). This is cause for concern given the steep rise in mental health problems that have proliferated during the pandemic. Videoconferencing technology, with cameras on, has been shown to cause an increased load on cognitive function or overload, as individuals try to interpret the myriad of visual cues presented, resulting for many in what has been termed Zoom fatigue (Forani, 2021). Trauma and videoconferencing fatigue can compound, negatively affecting student learning.

Cameras act as a mirror for those already suffering from trauma, mental illness, or socioeconomic disparity (Costa, 2020; Duncan, 2021; Forani, 2021), magnifying inequities and forcing individuals to continuously observe themselves in a way that may cause additional trauma and distress. In a physical classroom, students for the most part are seated facing the front of the room or lecture hall to direct their attention to the teacher. When a student speaks aloud in a class, they can typically see who is watching them, and are seldom faced with being at the front of the classroom on their own (Duncan, 2021; Reed, 2020). In a videoconferencing session, an individual is not aware of who is looking at them, and for those developing their self-identities or those who are self-conscious, the idea that someone might be watching can be overtaxing on their senses and produce anxiety (Finders & Muñoz, 2021; Reed, 2020).

Providing students with the autonomy to choose how and when they want to engage with the course material can alleviate unnecessary stressors for those dealing with trauma and mental health issues and help them attain learning outcomes more effectively (Metzler, 2021). During pandemic times, it is more important than ever for educators to understand students’ basic physiological needs and focus on their personal safety to ensure they feel secure and safe enough in the online classroom to become engaged and meet their full potential. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs (Figure 1.1) depicts this necessity for the fulfillment of both one’s basic and psychological needs in order to reach one’s full potential.

A graphic showing Maslow's five levels of human needs. These are physiological needs, safety needs, belongingness and love needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization.
Figure 1.1 Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Need [Clip art], by Androidmarsexpress, 2020, Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Friend and Spelic (2020) and Rorabaugh (2012) called for educators to consider the current context that students are learning in and to acknowledge that the online learning experience cannot be identical to one in the classroom. Online learning is a different environment with different resources, and access and ability to thrive online is often dependent on a student’s past experiences, abilities, and socioeconomic context. Schools must consider these variables in planning for online learning in order to provide an inclusive and equitable education that minimizes risk to students.

Having cameras on or off can affect how teachers engage in the online classroom. Some educators have indicated that cameras are a distraction from their role in the online classroom. Educators such as Alexis Buschert (2021) have noted that having cameras off can assist in increasing teacher self-confidence: “I can be myself without feeling self-conscious about the eye rolls, the sighs, the yawns or the phones squirrelled away under the desk” (para. 11).

Some educators assert their preference for cameras to be on during classes, and provide an option for students who are experiencing technical or bandwidth issues, or those who have formal accommodations, to remain off camera. However, as Duncan (2021) pointed out, this practice is an assertion of power, implying that permission needs to be granted, putting the students off camera at risk of being identified as “others” as opposed to active participants in the class. To mitigate risk, educators can apply Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles by providing a variety of options for all learners. This approach requires educators to trust that students will choose an option that suits their needs. UDL applications allow all participants to have multiple options for engagement and participation so that no one student needs to be openly accommodated. Armed with the knowledge of what is expected and needed to succeed, students can engage in a variety of ways, because they feel trusted to do so. Providing choice and multiple options for engagement allows students to maintain their autonomy while mitigating potential risks.

All students deserve a safe space to learn, but the online environment is ever-changing, and participants simply cannot unsee something broadcast through video to the class. Disruptions can occur, such as Zoom bombing, classroom pranks, and unwanted sexualized remarks that are shared openly by participants. Student codes of conduct may only partially assist in dealing with these behaviours after an incident has already occurred. Attempts at maintaining safety are being made through the use of class-specific logins and passwords, but the lack of authentication can prove a stumbling block if the information is shared outside of the designated participant group. Digital backgrounds are available in some platforms but, as mentioned earlier, these can pose bandwidth issues and call to question the equitability of the technology itself.

Stanford (2020) has challenged educators to assess their use of tools in online environments based on bandwidth and immediacy. In his framework, synchronous videoconferencing is identified as a tool “that require[s] both high bandwidth and high immediacy” (para. 13), which can be taxing on the technological resources of students, putting their course success at risk and potentially causing a “sense of shame and anxiety” (para. 2) as it may reveal their lack of access to high-speed internet to all participants. Although low tech does not seem as sexy in 21st-century learning, it can help address equity and access issues. Providing simple solutions for student engagement that do not require high bandwidth or immediacy allows students with other needs and access problems the opportunity to participate how and when they can (Young, 2020).

While educators must continue to take the primary role in ensuring equity in the classroom, institutions can play a role in reducing risk through the vetting of platforms and the creation of policy or frameworks on how technology is used to support learning (Goodis, 2021). Technology system developers may be able to reimagine what was once developed for business to adapt or create better platforms for school environments (Bui, 2021).

Emerging Practice, Theory, Authentic Contexts and Learners’ Personal Connection

Many educators are grieving the loss of their known and familiar educational environments, both personally and professionally. With this grieving may come a sense of loss of control, which can cause educators to seek ways to control as much as possible. Working from a lecture hall or physical classroom, educators felt they had full control of their domain, knowing for the most part the room would be fully equipped to meet their needs. To enhance learning, educators need to divest from full control (Bali, 2014) and focus instead on empowering learners to assert themselves in ways that suit their needs so that they can feel secure and in control themselves (Brown, 2005; Rorabaugh, 2012).

Punitive approaches to the use of cameras—participatory grade reductions, removal from online lecture if cameras are not on—are a part of an antiquated control dynamic in which students are believed to lack the autonomy to be fully participatory in their own learning (Finders & Muñoz, 2021). Online learning can be developed to provide students the necessary agency to determine how and when they learn, along with responsibility for their own time management, participation, and quality of education, which they frame through their own experiences and choices (Weller, 2020b). In an online classroom, an educator needs to re-evaluate expectations based on the necessary learning outcomes and then determine the appropriate levels and ways in which students can engage to meet those expectations.

Many educators can agree that both teacher and student need to be present and engaged for quality education to happen. However, in the context of an online classroom, teaching presence and how it lends itself to creating a safe space for students to test their own limits needs further exploration. Educators might ask, is the camera the only way students can engage with this material? Is my need to see faces reflective of a desire for control rather than an effort to support students’ diverse learning needs?

Lindsay Masland (n.d.)  of Appalachian State University developed a resource for educators on camera use in the classroom. It provides educators with a number of ways to ensure student engagement while building a sense of community in the classroom—central components of the community of inquiry framework (Garrison, 2017). Feedback is required in the community of inquiry framework to inform adaptations and modifications in each sphere of presence: social, cognitive, and teaching (DeWaard, 2016a, 2016b). Numerous resources outline a variety of optional ways to engage with students online (e.g., Barnes, 2016; DeWaard, 2016b; Loya, 2020; Young, 2020), but what appears to be lacking in this critical moment is an investment in the development of educators, so they have the tools and support to modify and redefine how they engage with their students online.

Finders and Muñoz (2021) noted that “the work of teaching requires the development of mutually respectful, trusting and supportive relationships. Respect and trust must extend to understanding students’ needs for privacy and the safety from surveillance of their private lives” (para. 13). The trust and relationship between educators and students is put at risk when rigid, standardized structures are applied that do not support the desired learning outcomes.

By intentionally setting and sharing clear expectations mapped to required learning outcomes (Barnes, 2016; Quality Matters, 2020; Sloan & Catania, 2021; Weller, 2020b) and providing alternate modes of engagement, educators can strengthen their teaching presence in the online environment. That is not to say that cameras or video do not have a role. DeWaard (2016a) suggested that through strategic application using UDL principles, educators can use video and audio to humanize teacher presence and “enhance feelings of immediacy and closeness between instructors and students” (para. 4) while modelling engagement behaviour for students. Trusting that students will make choices for their own academic success serves to motivate student participation. To increase participation in a safe and trusting learning environments, teachers need to gather feedback that they can use to meet students where they are at and to adapt to the needs of each student in the class to support them in achieving the expected learning outcomes.


Media 1.1 This video was created by a student to depict their experience in remote learning during the pandemic in 2020. The video shows a grade nine student performing tasks relating to remote learning during the Covid-19 pandemic. The video shows a time lapse of the student sitting in the same spot in her bedroom over the course of many days, getting increasingly distraught.  It does not feature spoken words, but contains elements of background audio and music. (Liv McNeil, 2020)

The COVID-19 pivot has brought to light numerous ethical issues in the implementation of a variety of technology for learning. While many of these issues existed before, much has been accentuated with the rapid move to remote teaching and learning without proper pause and reflection on practice. This sudden change in delivery has in some cases given rise to potential harm to students and educators by forcing them to see or be seen on video in a variety of ways.

Although educators and students are both affected by the pandemic, it must be accepted that no one is living in the same circumstances, nor coming to the table with the same history or experience. Online education can benefit many teachers and learners; however, it will not equally benefit all without appropriate time and energy given to UDL principles, trauma-informed practice, and the development of all aspects of a community of inquiry to support student learning equitably. Putting students at the centre of their learning (Bali, 2014; Friend & Spelic, 2020) and focusing on building trust and safety will increase opportunities for authentic engagement in the online classroom.

As Weller (2020b) pointed out, when online teaching is not working it becomes viewed as a deficit as opposed to an opportunity, but to increase the opportunity, investment is needed. Moving forward, institutions need to focus time and energy on supporting educators in exploring pedagogies and learning designs specific to online learning and providing professional learning to reimagine their programs, as undoubtedly online learning will continue to increase for the foreseeable future.

Future research may focus on the development of low-bandwidth enhancements that protect participants’ privacy in videoconferencing environments, on the development of privacy policy covering the collection and storage of classroom recordings, on acceptable use and student conduct policy enhancements for the online classroom, and on the ethical implications of educators gaining an intimate view into the home lives of students through online environments.

For now, permitting students to keep their cameras off may simply mean that educators must support students and trust that this support will create an open and safe environment for them to engage in ways that best meet their learning needs and allow them to develop as learners within a community of learners.


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