Why We Don’t Turn Our Web Cameras on in Zoom: The Impact on Teaching and Learning

Cosette Lemelin, Assistant Director, Centre for Teaching and Learning, shares some advice for instructors teaching synchronous online classes.


A return to campus at last! 

Students greet and approach the instructor who taught them online, yet the instructor is confused or caught off guard because she cannot recognize students who didn’t turn their camera on during synchronous Zoom classes. 

The instructor begins an in-person class at the front of a large lecture hall by drawing attention to his monogrammed University of Alberta socks because students had seen only his head and shoulders on Zoom for 18 months. The students and instructor share a laugh and a moment of understanding.

The most rewarding compliment is that students find their instructor’s course as engaging in person on campus as it was online. 

These anecdotes reflect many U of A instructors' experiences of teaching to unseen and unheard students in a synchronous online Zoom class. When students keep their webcams off during synchronous online classes, instructors no longer receive nor have the opportunity to respond to students’ body language, facial expressions, and general tone or vibe of the Zoom classroom. Admittedly, teaching to a wall of blank screens in Zoom leads me to feel lonely and a bit desperate at times. Is anyone out there? Confirm your existence with a comment in the chat, please. 

The importance of actively engaging students in their learning through interactions has been emphasized by educational theorists for decades dating back to Piaget (1969) and Vygotsky (1981). Recent evidence reinforces the notion that students’ lack of connection to each other and online learning opportunities in the course can lead to student experiences of isolation and disengagement with the course (Burke & Lamar, 2020). Effective and meaningful learning means active and engagement with the content, the instructor, and the classmates.

The experience of teaching online to a series of turned off webcams, prompted one instructor to ask me, “If my students won’t turn on their webcams during synchronous online classes, should I just record my lectures and post them on eClass for asynchronous viewing?” On the surface, it’s a fair question. However, human interactions in teaching and learning are rarely simple or straightforward. Let’s dig into a few key questions around this topic: 

  • Why do students turn their web cameras off during synchronous Zoom classes or meetings?
  • How can instructors and students foster connection, trust, and meaningful learning communication from a series of closed (web camera off) black boxes in Zoom? 
  • Is it appropriate or realistic to expect others to avoid multitasking while meeting and learning in Zoom?
  • Is having the web camera on or off a matter of respect, professionalism, or civility? Or is everyone, as my colleague tells me, “doing the best they can” in times like these?

Unsurprisingly, U of A instructors and I are not alone in asking these questions. Recent evidence identified the most common reasons students keep their web cameras off during online classes, including:

  1. Feeling shy or uncomfortable with the notion that everyone can consistently see them or are looking at them. In traditional lecture-style classrooms, students faced the instructor at the front. Now, everyone can look at each other all the time (Gherhes, Simon, & Para, 2021). 

  2. The group-norm is cameras off. If everyone else has their camera off, students are more likely to turn off their cameras as well (Castelli & Sarvary, 2021).

  3. Poor access to high quality internet connectivity due to limited bandwidth coverage and other inequities in access to technology give some students no choice to turn on the webcam (Castelli & Sarvary,2021; Gherhes, 2021).

  4. The desire to maintain privacy about home life and home spaces (Bedenlier et al., 2020; Castelli & Sarvary, 2021). 

  5. Concern about appearance. Some students don't like the way they look or don’t feel “camera ready” (Finders & Munoz, 2021) because they didn’t have time to shower, do their makeup, style their hair, or generally feel unprepared to be seen by others. 
  6. Would rather not be seen doing other tasks such as: eating, going to the bathroom, lying in bed, walking away from the camera, tending to a child or family member, doing household chores, answering email, or browsing the internet (Gherhes et al., 2021). Multitasking is more common when students are disengaged or uninterested in the course. 

  7. Feelings of Zoom fatigue. Being in Zoom meetings for extended periods of time, such as several hours of online classes per day, is cognitively and mentally draining (Toney, Light, & Urbaczewski, 2021). 

Thus, the realities behind the webcamera being turned off are related to circumstances ranging from the larger system or infrastructure, to instructors’ expectations, and to learner needs. 


I’ve been asked several times if it matters if students turn on their webcams during synchronous online classes (or not)? From my perspective, what matters is why students are keeping their webcams off. I encourage instructors to survey their students at the start of the course to find out what would allow or encourage students to turn on their webcams and when. Smaller courses might engage in a discussion using this blog as a prompt, for instance. Find out more about your students’ circumstances, needs, and preferences, share an anonymous summary of the responses with your students, then set expectations for webcam use in your course. Check in with your students periodically. 


Asking your students to keep their cameras on for the entire length of an online synchronous class is unrealistic in many cases. Instead, aim for “small windows of connection” with cameras on, such as:

  • When in breakout rooms, cameras are turned on; when the instructor lectures, the cameras may be turned off. 
  • Try a ‘soft start’ to synchronous classes where the instructor opens the Zoom room 10-15 minutes early to allow students to arrive, socialize, and ask questions with camera on. The formal class starts on time. 
  • Student groups of 4-5 agree on an appropriate group Zoom background which is then noted in on a google doc for the instructor. The instructor calls on the Zoom background rather than individual members who may or may not choose to appear on camera.
  • In a Hybrid course: students who are physically present in the classroom on campus with the instructor also have Zoom open to connect with the students who are online. 

On the surface, turning off a webcam in Zoom may be interpreted as disinterest in the course, an interpretation I’ve heard expressed as concern, frustration, and disappointment among instructors at various universities. Nonetheless, a number of factors influence students’ decision or ability to turn on a webcam in a synchronous online class on Zoom. Connect with your students by asking them why. The effort in doing so can be part of establishing engagement and meaningful learning in your course. 


Bedenlier, S., Wunder, I., Glaser-Zikuda, M., Kammerl, R., Kopp, B., Ziegler, A, & Handel, M.  (2020). Generation invisible: Higher education students’ (non)use of webcams in synchronous online learning. Available online http;//webcache.googleusercontent./com

Castelli, F. & Sarvary, M. (2021). Why students do not turn on their video cameras during online classes and an equitable and inclusive plan to encourage them to do so. Ecology and Evolution, DOI: 10.1002/ece3.7123

Finders, M. & Munoz, J. (2021). Why it’s wrong to require students to keep their cameras on in online classes (opinion). Inside Higher Education, March 3http://www.insidehighered.com

Gherhes, V., Simon.S., & Para, I. (2021). Analysing students’ reasons for keeping webcams on or off during online classes. Sustainability, 13, 3203. https://doi.org//10.3390/su13063203

Toney, S., Light, J., & Urbaczewski, A. (2021). Fighting Zoom Fatigue: Keeping the Zoombies at Bay. Communications of the Association for Information Systems, 48, pp-pp. https://doi.org/10.17705/ 1CAIS.0480 .

cosette.pngAbout Cosette 

Dr. Cosette Lemelin has 17 years of experience in Educational Developer roles in a 20-year career in adult and post-secondary education at three universities (the University of Winnipeg, the University of Manitoba, and the University of Alberta). She has a Master of Education (2003) and PhD in Education (2016) focusing on adult and post-secondary education. Cosette’s unique specialities include teaching within health professions education (with a focus on clinical practicum teaching and learning), classroom management, and varying aspects of interpersonal communication in teaching and learning. Cosette calls herself a “Teaching Coach” for university instructors and faculty members striving to improve their teaching one class, one activity, or one interaction at a time. Cosette is the 2019 recipient of the University of Alberta Excellence in Learning Support Award, and received the award again in 2020 with the CTL Team as part of their COVID 19 Response.