A new visibility policy at Northwestern University in Qatar mandates students to turn on their cameras during online classes for the Spring Semester. The policy is meant to help foster an online community as many students and faculty reported difficulty handling online teaching without cameras on, according to Kathleen Hewett-Smith, senior associate dean and chief academic officer at NU-Q.
However, students may seek a waiver from the requirement by submitting an application to the Visibility Policy Committee.
“Teaching to a ‘black screen’ is a challenge as faculty cannot receive visual cues from students as to how the lesson is going and as to whether students are taking in the information or points of discussion,” said Hewett-Smith.
A school-wide survey sent out to students in the Fall Semester confirmed this.
“Students expressed feelings of isolation and decreased motivation. Some expressed that they would like it if more students were visible in their classes,” Hewett-Smith explained, adding that “this policy responds directly to expressed student needs.”
For some students, however, the problem of Zoom fatigue trumps the supposed benefit of keeping the cameras turned on during online classes.
“My eyes started getting tired and became red and itchy. This made me lose focus in the middle of class. I feel like when your body is physically tired or is hurt, you become emotionally tired as well,” said Chadi Lasri, a communication sophomore.
Multiple factors contribute to anxiety over video conferencing, according to Patricia Collins, counselor and coordinator of health and wellness at NU-Q.
“We have to give a lot more in Zoom meetings, not just as the speaker, but also as the listener in order to be engaged. We almost have to over-compensate in our expressions just to give that feedback. It takes a lot of focus and mental energy, and it’s exhausting,” she said.
Apart from Zoom fatigue, students also have applied for waivers for cultural reasons.
“Parents aren’t okay with [their children] being recorded for class,” said Mohammed Al-Hawal, a journalism sophomore.
However, some students agree that the new visibility policy allows students and faculty to feel less isolated and disconnected.
“I feel better for professors because they are now on the interactive side of Zoom as opposed to only seeing a black screen,” said Linda Feng, a communication senior.
Other universities in Education City are also using Zoom to facilitate their online classes as the pandemic continues. Georgetown University in Qatar and Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar do not have a visibility policy implemented for every class, but students must keep their cameras on during exams.
“I did not mind having the camera on for the exam. I think taking exams in my own dormitory was comfortable for me because I got to do it in my own space. We were told to sign a consent form beforehand, and I did,” said Adeena Yaqoob, an international economics junior at GU-Q.
For CMU-Q, visibility policies depend on the professor. “The professor can lower a whole letter grade if I don’t turn my camera on for the class. I found it unfair, but I understand. They just want us to pay attention in class,” said Hyun Il Rhee, a biological science sophomore at CMU-Q.
NU-Q will continue to enforce the policy across classes and activities throughout the Spring Semester unless a waiver has been granted for valid reasons.
“More visibility in classes [benefits] mental health, which contributes to a positive and more engaged community, and decreases the sense of isolation, which has been a major cost of the pandemic. We wish to support the mental health of our faculty and provide the best conditions for excellent teaching and learning,” said Hewett-Smith.