3 alternatives to requiring video in online learning

Encourage students to respond with “reactions,” emojis or chat features.
By: | December 4, 2020
School districts are being asked to loosen mandatory video requirements for online learning because of student privacy and equity concerns. (GettyImages/RichLegg)School districts are being asked to loosen mandatory video requirements for online learning because of student privacy and equity concerns. (GettyImages/RichLegg)

School districts are being asked to loosen mandatory video requirements for online learning because of privacy and equity concerns.

Compelling students to turn on their webcams during online learning sessions raises issues of increased data collection, implies a lack of trust, and conflates students’ school and home lives, according to new recommendations from The Future of Privacy Forum and National Education Association.

“Requiring that students’ videos be on may unintentionally force students to reveal more about their private home lives than they may want to, from their living situation to who they live with, creating the potential for privacy harms,” said Amelia Vance, The Future of Privacy Forum‘s director of youth and education privacy. “It also risks deepening existing inequities, presenting additional challenges for students with disabilities, English language learners, and students with limited access to adequate Wi-Fi or video-supported devices.”

The groups note that 77% of students started the semester remotely, and surging COVID rates this fall are increasingly forcing districts that had re-opened classrooms to shift back online.


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“Video mandates during virtual class instruction coerces students to further blur the vanishing line between their home and school lives,” said Donna M. Harris-Aikens, the NEA’s senior director of education policy and practice. “When educators are required by districts to force video use, it violates the trust they’ve built with their students over countless hours of relationship-building through this pandemic and needlessly puts learning at risk in the pursuit of administrative oversight,”

Last month, the two groups and 23 other healthcare, disability rights, civil liberties, and data protection organizations released 10 principles to help educators navigate the “new normal” of student privacy and equity.

In new recommendations, the two groups urge educators to explore the following alternatives to requiring video:

  • Measuring classroom engagement: Use end-of-lesson quizzes or encourage students to respond and interact with material in different ways, such as with “reactions,” emojis or chat features.
  • Using avatars: Avatars protect student privacy while encouraging creativity; they also let educators teach to more than a blank screen.
  • Considering privacy and equity throughout the process: While video seems like the closest alternative to in-person learning, educators should weigh the benefits with privacy and equity risks such as increased data collection and the permanent documentation of personal aspects of students’ home lives.
  • Teaching students about privacy and how to ingrain it into their online lives: Students should understand the implications of sharing personal information, what data is being collected about them, and how to adjust settings within products and services to be more privacy-protective.

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