Animation by René Lapoutre

Invisible students

No one turns their webcam on

Animation by René Lapoutre
UG lecturers do everything they can to connect to their students during online classes. But that’s not easy when most students have their cameras turned off. ‘It feels like you are lecturing into a black abyss where you have no idea if things are making sense.’
27 January om 9:59 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 27 January 2021
om 9:59 uur.
January 27 at 9:59 AM.
Last modified on January 27, 2021
at 9:59 AM.

Door Denise Overkleeft

27 January om 9:59 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 27 January 2021
om 9:59 uur.

By Denise Overkleeft

January 27 at 9:59 AM.
Last modified on January 27, 2021
at 9:59 AM.

Denise Overkleeft

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‘It feels incredibly lonely’, says history and theory of international relations professor Luis Lobo-Guerrero. He currently teaches several courses for the international relations master programme. ‘Sometimes it feels like I am literally talking to a wall: my screen.’

When he’s teaching, Lobo-Guerrero imagines his students are sitting right in front of him, but that he can’t see them because there’s a light shining in his eyes, just like in large lecture halls. ‘But I don’t even know whether they are all present on the other side of the internet connection.’

Pauline Schreuder, associate professor of education sciences, recognises the feeling of uncertainty. ‘I feel like I’m performing a play’, she says. ‘It’s like I’m just pretending. It’s awkward.’ Sometimes, Schreuder will use the chat function to ask the group a question, just to see if anyone is actually there. ‘It makes me feel better when people actually respond.’ 

Nonverbal communication

Webcams would at least help lecturers feel a little connected to students on the other end, if only the latter would turn theirs on. Some professors end up teaching for two hours to a bunch of grey squares on a black background. 

If people look confused, you might be going too fast

In online lectures, that’s not that big of a deal. In fact, the internet connection would probably fail if every single student attending the lecture turned their camera on. And in big lecture halls, teachers end up looking only at the first few rows anyway. But smaller seminars are different. For those, teachers are practically begging their students to turn their camera on. 

‘A webcam draws your attention. It’s crucial to communication’, says Arie Dijkstra, who teaches a course in social psychology of communication this block. The nonverbal communication between teacher and students, like intonation, gestures, facial expression, is just as important as the verbal communication. 

‘A room full of confused faces gives us a hint to clarify a point’, says Scott Eldridge with media studies and journalism. When people leave their webcams turned off, part of that communication is missing. ‘It feels like you are lecturing into a black abyss where you have no idea if things are making sense.’ 


Even in the large lecture halls, it helps to see students’ body language and faces. ‘It’s like I’m talking to myself in the mirror’, says Schreuder. ‘My screen doesn’t care, doesn’t complain.’ But if you see the students across from you slumping down in their chairs, you know they’re probably bored. If people look confused, you might be going too fast. ‘You can then adjust accordingly’, says Schreuder. 

I don’t want the lecturer to know I’m still in bed

The thing is, students don’t like to expose themselves to their lecturers’ scrutiny. By leaving their webcam turned off, they have time to get a cup of coffee, run an errand while the lecturer is talking, or miss the class altogether. 

International relations student Lucia Mohr finds the dilemma complex. ‘If everyone would use the webcam, the quality of the classes would improve’, she says She wouldn’t use her mobile phone as much if she knew that others could see her. Plus, it would also feel like you’re all in the same class together. ‘But I don’t want to take initiative myself’, she adds. ‘I am afraid to give a weird impression to other people when nobody has it on.’

Eating in class

Master student of geopolitics Son Vu tries to turn his camera on as much as possible, but sometimes he pretends. ‘For the past couple of months, I have been using this Google Meet plugin which allows you to freeze your screen’, he says. ‘While it looks like you have technical issues, you can secretly take a sip of your water, eat or sneeze.’ It’s really nifty, but Son only uses it for short bits, ‘because I know that the professor likes to see our faces’. 

They’re adults, and it’s their decision

Robin van Gammeren, journalism master student, prefers to leave her webcam turned off. ‘I usually don’t get up until a quarter to 9 for online classes’, she says. That means she doesn’t look like she would during on-site classes. She also just likes to eat something without the whole class watching her.  

International relations student Mark Sheridan also leaves his camera turned off. ‘Mainly because I’m still chilling in bed and don’t want the lecturer to know’, he says with a grin. Sometimes he’ll leave to run an errand or to get a kebab, something he couldn’t do if his webcam was on. But he’ll occasionally turn his camera on if his professor asks. ‘Depending how bad I am looking’, Mark explains. ‘I might be hungover.’


In the meantime, lecturers try to deal with the situation as best they can. ‘All we have to go on is our experience’, says Dijkstra. ‘Fortunately, we know what kind of audience students are.’ The professors hope their students understand the jokes and examples, just like the ones before them did. ‘But you’re never entirely sure.’

Schreuder obliges her seminar students to turn their cameras on. ‘As a sign of respect towards each other’, she says. ‘People who don’t want to show others their tired face and pyjamas simply have to make sure to brush their hair and wear a clean t-shirt.’ 

Political scientist Melle Scholten asks his students to at least turn their webcam on when they’re asking a question. Approximately 80 percent actually does so. ‘But I don’t police it too strongly: almost every student is an adult, and to turn it on or off is ultimately their own decision’, he says. 

He is worried, though. The more reserved students are usually the ones that leave their camera off. They don’t want to draw any attention to themselves. ‘The students that are less motivated, shy, or less confident’, he thinks. ‘Normally I can approach them during a break or after class in person, but the barrier to do so is much higher with online teaching.’