Synchronous Online Class Camera/Microphone Usage

I heard recently of an elementary school district making a mandatory dress code that students should not attend online classes in their pajamas. My first thought was, don’t they remember their undergraduate days when flannel pants, hoodie sweatshirts and fuzzy slippers were standard student attire? As we all consider how best to promote student learning in a remote environment, it is important to consider how we all participate in synchronous online environments. I’ve heard from faculty and students that some professors prefer to see faces on the screen instead of names in black squares, blank walls, or nose hairs, as one professor said so eloquently.  While I agree that seeing students’ faces may often be the best way to know if they are truly attending and participating in classes, there are a number of accessibility reasons why students (or meeting participants) should be allowed or even encouraged to turn off cameras during synchronous online class/meeting sessions. 

  • Deaf or hard-of-hearing (HOH) students need everyone to take turns talking. For class participants to turn off cameras and microphones except when speaking helps to facilitate this turn taking and cuts down on audio and visual noise. People who rely on being able to see a speaker so that they can use lip-reading to facilitate comprehension need a solitary speaker view instead of a gallery. 
    • We should assume there are more people who are hard of hearing than we know about, especially in an online setting where people have to use different compensation skills than in face-to-face settings.
    • It may be the instructor who needs these compensation strategies.
  • Students with ADHD may be able to focus better with less audio and visual distractions.
  • Some students may be more comfortable emotionally managing specific needs with camera and microphone disengaged as needed:
    • A student managing pain or other symptoms of a chronic or acute condition may be more comfortable in bed, on the sofa, changing position frequently, etc.
    • A parenting student may need to care for a child during a class session (nursing, diaper change, etc.). 
  • Students with high levels of anxiety can become incapacitated by feeling everyone is looking at them by having a camera literally in their faces during an entire class session. 

I also encourage faculty and students to consider using over-the-ear noise-canceling headphones with a boom microphone. Built-in speakers and microphones can allow extraneous noise to distract the user and other participants. Earbuds with an in-line microphone are an improvement over a laptop system and less sweaty than over-the-ear headphones but a microphone bumping against a shirt can cause “fuzzy” sound in more than one sense of the word.


Once again Charles Dickens’ famous line “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” fits the situation.