Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Showing Faces (or Not) in Remote Instruction

This year, our school has asked students to show their faces during remote instruction. This is a large improvement for those of us out here doing the work. Some say this is an intrusion on student privacy. There are workarounds, though, for students uncomfortable with showing their faces or homes. Students can use virtual backgrounds, and many do. For now at least, they're also free to come to our building and use school computers.

Some of my students don't show their entire faces. Some show only their foreheads. Others show half or less of their profiles. While I'd prefer to see their entire faces, I'm good with their preferences. At least I know they're there. It's difficult, of course, to get to know students you can't see. If they are available, and if they respond to questions, I can settle for whatever they're comfortable with.

It was very difficult last year looking at all avatars. You never know what students are doing, or not doing, while they're hiding. Are they listening to you? Are they playing video games? Sleeping? Having a wild party in their home? Without even inviting you? Your guess is as good as mine. Last year, when we didn't ask students to turn on cameras, virtually none of them showed their faces. You'd ask a question and  likely as not get nothing back.Why bother doing anything once your computer is turned on?

This was very disconcerting to me. In my physical classroom, I walk around everywhere, startling students who are lost in space. I'll suddenly raise my voice to a ridiculous level while passing a student whose head is down. I'll intentionally trip over something and draw a sleepy kid's attention along with that of everyone else. I'll essentially say or do anything to get kids on track.

Of course, when students don't show their faces, I have no option. I'm the teacher just sitting at the teacher desk, shackled there with far fewer options to draw the attention of those who are really unfocused. And there are so many of them. It's particularly disturbing in the beginning, when you really don't know who anyone is. How do you get to know students you can't see, especially when you don't even know whether or not they're really there with you?

Our school culture is improved now that students see showing faces as the way to go. It's certainly easier for me now. Having them all show avatars is like having them come to class with paper bags over all their heads. Teachers, especially K-12,  do more than just grade papers and report cards. There's something we leave with our students, and it's ideally some sort of positive human influence. Compliments students leave me rarely if ever have to do with grades, and I can't recall the last time I mentioned grades on a recommendation. In fact, I can't even imagine writing a recommendation for a student I'd never seen. Fortunately that prospect has yet to come up.

In fairness, as with most rules, I'm not enforcing this 100%. I'm not threatening to fail anyone who doesn't keep a camera on. I have one student who tells me his camera doesn't work. I have my doubts, but I won't push it. I have one who I know, and who I feel I'm lucky he shows up at all. I have another who's in a foreign country after the passing of her grandfather. She's one of my best students, and I'm happy she takes the trouble to come. It's kind of a miracle that she's able. I'll work with them all.

Still, in classes of 34, I have to periodically check on the handful of students who don't show their faces. Time after time, half of them don't respond. As in the past, their friends may text them, and sometimes five minutes later they'll write some excuse in the chat. I'd say, though, there are distinct advantages in showing our faces for all of us. 

In fact, most distractions from homes, both student homes and mine, come from sounds rather than sights. Some of my students live in very noisy homes, and that's evident whenever they turn their microphones on. I often have to mute them. In my own home, my dog joins me in my classroom every day. Sometimes he loudly demands to play fetch, bringing me a toy to throw. I can instruct him to be quiet, which never works, or throw the toy, which gets him to momentarily run away. Of course many of my colleagues have young children more demanding than my dog.

We all have our various issues. I'd argue my students are better off if they can show their faces. Last year, when it was strictly voluntary, I offered extra credit. The only students who took me up on that were those with 98 averages, those who least needed my attention. I know there are people out there doing studies and things that find this the most outrageous thing since the last natural disaster.

This notwithstanding, I think most students are better off participating as actively as they possibly can. It's very hard for me to see how showing their faces isn't an integral part of that.

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