On Presence and Webcams



We need to address the concept of Presence as one of the factors which will lead to a successful Autumn term, especially regarding KEEPING our new first years engaged, as some won’t be familiar with the type of learning community we want to encourage, nor will they necessarily be used to the discipline of turning up to give us that presence.

In this article I hope to give you some ideas to help you prepare, focusing on the idea that the utilisation of Webcams can help us achieve this.

The Challenge

At my institution we are looking at a synchronous mix of on-line and in person teaching for the Autumn term, and there are a number of reasons why. Firstly, we want to build a sense of community and shared purpose, and we believe that comes from student ownership and adoption of a collective presence.

In the past, online undergraduate students who decide it is preferable to go through recordings of earlier lectures and therefore time-shift engagement are often missing the point of what we are about, and often trade focus and a richer understanding of their subject for temporary convenience. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t offer the online catch-up option, but that we shouldn’t normalise it.

Many students who prefer asynchronous learning (because they have daytime jobs or a chaotic lifestyle) are also missing out on metaskills like teamwork and joint discussion and negotiation that can actually be more important to future work opportunities than the subject itself. Studying on your own, no matter how many supporting resources are available, can be like reading post-it notes left in an empty classroom after everyone’s gone home.

This article represents current thinking on how we promote presence and collectivity, when a dual track synchronous classroom can seem like a fragmented classroom, or rather, one with a giant fault line down the middle. It’s easy for those online students who might be out of sight to the tutor (as they aren’t in the physical space) to become ‘steerage class’- inert cargo in the online basement. In addition we also need to be alert to the unconscious feeling from gathering students that those who have made it in to the building – made the effort to get up in time, get dressed and spend time (and money) travelling- are somehow more dedicated to the cause, and therefore more deserving of attention.

The affordances of the online tech we use may also exacerbate the difference between the two modes of attending. A tutor in the physical classroom will easily see a student gesticulating with their hand up looking for help, or one doodling and staring distractedly out the window, and can assist or correct them, but may not notice the ‘hand up’ icon on the Teams interface on their screen, nor that the online participant has nipped off down the shops. Much of the connective tech we use was not actually designed for classroom collaboration and can be gamed to make it appear learning is happening when it’s not.

Why our emphasis on Presence?

  1. Teamwork competencies are the lifeblood of the creative industries, and increasingly in industry those teams are (and will continue to be) indeterminate mixes of online and in-person members. They are much more challenging than online only or in-person-only teams, and as such people who can operate and lead or participate in projects that way are at a premium. If we still want to mirror our industries in how they operate we need to bear this in mind.
  • We believe in the power of peer group learning. Groups sharing skills and ideas, towards the collective goal. As all our students need to be treated equally, it makes sense that these teams are not corralled into all online or all in-person teams, as we wouldn’t use other characteristics to define a team’s members- like race or gender. Some students will see this as making things difficult for them, but this is not a valid reason. Explanation of our values will be important.
  • Presence is not just visibility- it’s a powerful precursor to engagement. It puts the student on track to engagement. Clocking in isn’t the answer, but at least it puts people into a better position to improve their learning chances. It focuses attention which is a great start.
  • Studies show social presence increases retention and student satisfaction and helps in more sophisticated communication (see research section)

Why use Webcams?

One of the ways to promote Presence is through visibility. It doesn’t guarantee it, but supports it.

We have an inbuilt wariness of webcams in our collective imaginary- surveillance, Taylorism, the private made public, prying and spying. There are certainly ethical questions to be asked about the use of webcams, and we can certainly encourage student debate about this, as a first stage to getting their optional buy-in.

The incidental video background picked up behind the student on camera can encourage misconceptions regarding their behaviours as it peers into their personal space. A messy bedroom, a house with few facilities or decorations, a noisy environment, or the worry of a family member encroaching into view. Socio-economic status can be deducted rightly or wrongly too. We’ve all seen people interviewed on the news with their impressive bookcases behind them.

Students may think they are giving away aspects of their life they want to keep personal. Maybe they are embarrassed that they share a bedroom, or live at home. Or maybe they are sensitive to their own looks and identity. All these are good reasons why webcams should not be compulsory, nor their absence seen as indicative of any particular motive or attribute.

Students may only have access to a PC with a poor connection in a shared space, and as such their experience may be improved by having their camera switched off. This makes sense. In cases like this you might want to encourage a still image portrait, largely as a symbolic token.

However, as a counterbalance to these concerns are several positive factors that might be gained by promoting visible presence.

The student who gets used to their visibility is the student who gets comfortable at in-person meetings and interviews. VFX, Animation, Games- we are all people industries relying on interpersonal communication.

Showing yourself is a hallmark of being noticed and valued. Your expression and gesture are powers you have in the world.

A note here about face coverings such as the Niqab, Hijab, Burqa, or headscarf. Such garments are often part of the students’ identity and as such are to be encouraged in webcam interactions. Much non-verbal communication and gesture is still available, as those who have taught such students in classrooms know well.

Brass Tacks: How to encourage Webcams

We deal in image creation. Encourage students to think about managing their own image. What could they put in their background? Could the camera be angled? Can they decorate the background? Can you as a tutor encourage them to own their background? We propose that students who currently do not have a webcam are offered one.

Students who don’t switch their webcams on are the equivalent of the ones who always sit at the back. Just like in the physical space where tutors will have tactics for engaging these ‘retirees’, we’ll need to be reminding our students of the advantage of being visible. Here’s a few suggestions below.

Icebreaker Pairs

At the start of modules, create icebreakers where pairs of students talk to each other on their own. They’ll need webcams on so they can meet each other. We know students prefer to ask questions in smaller groups- well, it can also be the scale of the perceived cohort that stops them sharing their webcam, so start them off in pairs.

As a pair, they later need to report back to a bigger group with cameras on, about what they found out about each other. Think of gamifying behaviour. An exercise variant of this would be based on the BBCTV “Would I Lie To You?” show. The student tries to fool the other to believe something about themselves that is untrue whilst remaining deadpan in expression. You explain they’ll need to see each other’s face and gesture and see if they can sneak some untruths about themselves into their conversation. Award points for the most lies! You may have your own fun ideas for acclimatising students to webcam usage.

Always explain our philosophy

As a Tutor, never explain that you want webcams on “because I want to see your face”. This can provoke mistaken ideas about control, power and suspicion. Rather remind students it gives them agency and control, and makes them a visible part of the team, and it is what industry does all the time, so get used to it now.

Never comment on backgrounds you might see into students’ houses, unless to highlight inventive work by the student. Incidental home backgrounds shouldn’t be seen by sensitive students as having any value to you as a tutor. Students do better with emerging technologies when you share the purpose for using them.

Zoom Backgrounds

Visible presence can be intimidating and exposing to some. You might want to consider nullifying these ideas by playful competition for the best or the most humourous digital Zoom ‘chromakey’ background every day. You could even give themes. This just makes webcams second nature.

Is there a Pedagogy or research behind this?

Social Presence theory has been around since the 1960s looking at how different media promote identity and learning. Studies tend to say social presence builds trust between individuals, which is crucial to our interactions in person or online environments (Baozhou, Weiguo, and Zhou, 2015)[1] According to Short, Williams, and Christie (1976)[2] social presence can be thought of as having two elements: Immediacy and Intimacy, that govern the psychological distance between communicators. These are activated through giving praise, soliciting viewpoints, humour, self-disclosure, eye-contact, facial expressions, gestures (Weiner and Mehrabian, 1968)[3]

Social presence is also defined as the degree to which one is perceived as a “real person” in mediated communication.

Interestingly, social presence was found to be a significant predictor of satisfaction within a computer-mediated form of communication, contributing about 60% of the variance. In other words, social presence contributes to overall satisfaction of students. Richardson and Swan (2003)[4] also found that overall perceived learning was predicted by levels of social presence in online courses. It’s not a giant leap to suppose students prefer to see each other online too.

There’s also Media Richness Theory (Rice, 1992) which looks at any medium’s capacity for immediate feedback, the senses involved, personalization, and language variety. For example, a phone call cannot reproduce visual social cues such as gestures which makes it a less rich communication media than video conferencing, which affords the transmission of gestures and body language. MRT theorizes that richer, personal communication media are generally more effective for communicating ambiguous or complex issues, as are prevalent in teaching our image based and sometimes subjective subjects.

Why bother? Well, in addition to supporting student satisfaction (Walther, 1994; Gunawardena, Lowe & Anderson,1997; Tu, 2002; Richardson & Swan, 2003; Maeda, Caskurlu, Lv & Richardson, 2017) social presence is a kind of literacy (Whiteside, 2018) and can predict over 21% of the variance in retention (Boston, Diaz, Gibson, Ice, Richardson & Swan, 2009)

We need to remember media alone does not establish social presence – people do.

[1] Lu, Baozhou and Fan, Weiguo, “SOCIAL PRESENCE, TRUST, AND SOCIAL COMMERCE PURCHASE INTENTION: AN EMPIRICAL RESEARCH” (2014). PACIS 2014 Proceedings. 105. https://aisel.aisnet.org/pacis2014/105

[2] Short, J., Williams, E., & Christie, B. (1976). The social psychology of telecommunications. London: John Wiley & Sons

[3] Weiner, M., Mehrabian, A., (1968) Language Within Language: Immediacy, a Channel in Verbal Communication Ardent Media

[4] Richardson, J. C., & Swan, K. (2003). Examining social presence in online courses in relation to students’ perceived learning and satisfaction. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 7(1), 68-88.

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