An Era of Change: Remote Engagement, Multi-tasking, and Camera Policies

Woman is on Zoom meeting with webcam

It has grown cliché to say the pandemic has changed education both rapidly and permanently. Certainly, public health concerns have forced educators at all levels to master remote teaching, learning, and engagement.  As technology, educators, and students continue to evolve, recommended practices change rapidly, even unto the point of contradicting prior guidelines. Notably, camera guidelines seem to shift with the wind: Cameras-off for privacy. Cameras-on for accountability. Cameras-off to preserve bandwidth. As software for remote engagement evolves, so also will best practices, social norms, and etiquette standards. Further complicating matters, students and faculty may have disparate and conflicting sensibilities regarding acceptable behaviors, creating unintentional uncivil environments.  To foster healthy academic communities amidst change and social difference, evidence-based standards of behavior must be identified. 

Best practices in an era of change

Identifying evidence-based standards using large scale, long-term studies in an arena of constant change can seem like an exercise in futility. Technology and best practices at the launch of a research project may well be obsolete by the time it reaches publication. Further, human adaption to technology makes change over time an intractable feature. For learners, the effects of frequent virtual meetings might be different from the effects of infrequent virtual meetings.  While the former may be draining, the latter may have the charm of novelty.  Then again, the former may foster familiarity and expertise, where the latter fosters stress.  Teaching personality and learning style also profoundly influence success in remote environments. Certainly, there’s good reason for replication problems that have been observed in education (Makel & Plucker, 2014). It leads to uncertainty in identified “best practices.”  

So, given that best practices are elusive, it seems that the wisest approach would be influenced by evidence, with ample doses of the humility required to identify change and the agility to embrace that change. Evidence suggests that both professors and students would like to continue to integrate virtual meetings for some activities, including both class and faculty meetings. The question then becomes, What protocols can be embraced to promote the success of these activities? 

 The inevitability of multi-tasking

As a starting point, it may be helpful to address the subject of multi-tasking during online meetings. According to a recent poll (Morris, 2020), more than half of virtual meeting participants multi-task, with the most common side-activity being checking email. While such behavior appears to be generally accepted in faculty meetings, instructors may find it vexing in student class behavior.  For this reason, requiring cameras-on may be recommended as a tool to improve student engagement.  Similarly, some meeting software such as WebEx permits facilitators to track when meeting participants navigate to other screens.

In some ways, however, multi-tasking has always been a feature in meetings and classrooms.  Even before the age of computers and mobile devices, most people can remember a time when they zoned out during a meeting thinking instead about a pressing problem or dinner plans.  Perhaps instead of taking notes they doodled or scrawled out a grocery list. Multi-tasking is not new. Thinking, however, is now more externalized and integrated with computer use, and this integration seems to have created a sharp line between signs of internal disengagement (zoning out) and external disengagement (navigating to other windows).  This creates a philosophical problem: disengagement is a choice in both contexts, but it is penalized in only one. 

Questioning cameras

The consequences of camera-use as a tool to promote engagement in meetings have been documented in the literature.  The phrase “Zoom Fatigue” has entered the conversation and describes a general sense of exhaustion that has been attributed to the use of virtual meeting formats.  The literature (Bailenson, 2021) has suggested that this sense of exhaustion may stem from the persistence of eye contact, as well as the sense of perpetual self-consciousness associated with a pervasive mirror of a user’s image broadcasted to a large audience.  More recently, research suggests that the fatigue effect has disproportionately affected women (DeWitt, 2021).  Subsequent recommendations have included: disabling the self-view, limiting camera use time to small group contexts, and outright prohibitions of camera use. 

In reviewing the emerging data and conversations about virtual meetings, it is striking how often camera use becomes the focus. The objective of any sort of meeting, faculty, or classroom should be participant engagement.  Camera use is certainly not necessary for participant engagement and one can be fully engaged through audio without broadcasting their image—think about compelling podcasts.  Nor is camera use sufficient for participant engagement—multi-tasking with cameras on happens every day. If camera use is neither necessary nor sufficient for meeting engagement, perhaps we should be seeking better tools for improving remote engagement and content delivery. 


Bailenson, J. (2021). Nonverbal overload: A theoretical argument for the causes of Zoom fatigue. Technology, Mind, & Behavior.

DeWitt, M. (2021). Zoom fatigue worse for women, Stanford study finds.  Stanford News.

Makel, M. , & Plucker, J. (2014). Facts are more important than novelty: Replication in the eduction sciences. Educational Researcher.

Morris, K. (2020). Survey: Most people are distracted during virtual meetings. Zippia.