Student Zoom Expectations: Camera On, Please!

Shy on ZoomWhile clear behavioral and classroom expectations have always been routine for traditional face-to-face classes, the swift movement toward adapting routines in virtual and digital classrooms has generated many questions.  One particularly important question from faculty has been, “Am I allowed to request that my students enable their cameras during a live Zoom class session?”  As it happens—yes, faculty can absolutely request that students adhere to desired virtual online classroom etiquette, though expectations should be clearly articulated in each course’s syllabus.

As long as you are mindful of your obligations under FERPA to protect the privacy of students in your course by limiting virtual classroom participation to students within the course section of record, students can be expected to enable Zoom cameras during synchronous live course activities.  Students may only refuse to allow video for a specific legal reason (e.g. evidence of FERPA violation) or based on another specific accommodation need.  While faculty may require camera activation, faculty are naturally encouraged to be sensitive to concerns or special circumstances which might require exceptions.  We have put together the guide below to help navigate common concerns students have articulated relating to participating “camera on” in live Zoom class meetings.

Why are some students sometimes reluctant to show their faces on live class Zoom meetings?

While there are many reasons, several common themes emerge from students:

  1. Privacy:  Being asked to turn on your camera in the home, dorm room or other personal space can certainly feel like an invasion of privacy until students acclimate to online learning norms.  Not only can a student’s professor see them in a personal environment, but so can the whole class.  Some students might be shy or embarrassed to show their personal surroundings—or they may not feel “camera ready.”  Faculty are encouraged to consider the experiences of all students, but to understand that it might take some time for virtual/online students to acclimate to camera enablement.  Expectations should be clearly articulated in the course syllabus, and students should feel comfortable to bring concerns to their professors.
  2. Self-conscious:  Whereas students are used to “one to one” online communications on applications like Apple’s FaceTime—where students know they’re being seen by just one person, online learning activates “one to many” scenarios where students might feel that many faces are staring at them in their personal space.  Virtual Zoom windows can feel disconcerting since students do not know how they are being viewed by multiple people simultaneously.  Course expectations should be clearly articulated in the syllabus, and students should feel comfortable knowing that all students are inclusively held to the same classroom standards.
  3. Not camera-ready: Since students will be connecting to virtual classes from traditionally “personal” spaces, online/virtual students will sometimes not feel as “put together” as they might ordinarily be for an in-person class.  Since many online/virtual students will be participating in your courses from a personal space, there’s a chance that students don’t feel as “presentable” as they normally would in an in-person classroom setting or social setting.  Faculty are encouraged to set standards of personal presentation for live Zoom course sessions, to help let students know clear expectations of presence for your course.

What are some ideas that might help reluctant students feel more comfortable turning on their Zoom video?

  1. Set clear expectations in your Canvas syllabus:
    • as faculty require all students in the class to use their cameras, all students are likely to feel more comfortable since expectations are the same for everyone
    • as faculty clearly articulate expectations for camera, appearance, behavior in the Canvas syllabus, students will know what to expect
    • set general expectations—such as “please dress in casual clothes and avoid pajamas or attire which would disrupt the online classroom.”  Clear behavioral standards and Zoom meeting expectations will go a long way to clarifying for students that expectations for virtual classes should be roughly consistent with expectations for in-person classes
    • expect that students should prepare for Zoom online classes as if they were going to in-person classes
  2. Leverage video-presence into your course activities/instructional design:
    • use feedback from cameras/video for discussions, questions & answer sessions, presentations to develop a real sense of online engagement
    • use the regularity of seeing each other’s faces help to connect with one another and build class community

Faculty are encouraged to work with students so that they clearly understand that course behaviors/expectations regarding Zoom are designed to create a more formal/equitable environment for learning. Faculty are advised to set high expectations not for “learning from home” but for encouraging students to show up on camera the same way they show up to face-to-face classes.  Faculty are encouraged to be sensitive to students who have concerns about privacy or who might require or need accommodations.  Naturally, SMU hopes to balance the need to acclimate all students becoming accustomed to showing their faces online (in safe, FERPA-protected class environments) as well as respecting their concerns.

To learn more about FERPA at SMU, please visit

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Published by

Jason Warner

Associate CIO, Academic Technology Services