This fall semester is invoking a familiar distressing level of uncertainty as colleges and universities navigate the implications of the highly transmissible COVID-19 Delta variant. Compounding the troubling upticks in hospitalization and positive COVID-19 testing across the United States are questions about how the academic year will unfold. A recognizable conversation about the possibility of an abrupt transition from face-to-face to remote learning during the semester is re-emerging across social media.
In addition to these concerns, I’m worried about losing a feature of virtual learning: our ability to turn off our Zoom cameras, our power to shut down the gaze. In 2020, I was anxious about teaching a special topics course on makerspaces virtually — a class that is centered on shared tools, hands-on building and in-person collaborations. Fast-forward to 2021, and I am trying to imagine what it would look like to turn video off in a face-to-face classroom.
Remote teaching revealed an important variable that I didn’t think too much about before: the importance of students learning new skills and taking creative risks without being watched. Having a virtual classroom with the ability to turn off our cameras offered a generative, unusual sweet spot for learning. It’s an environment where students were not only together but also alone. It’s an environment where students were supported but also weren’t being observed by their instructor or peers — one where we could take a collective exhale from the performative demands of the classroom with a simple click of the “stop video” button.
For example, in my makerspace course, I would start each class with a short making activity. Then I’d give students the option to turn their cameras off. When students returned, they’d chat about the lo-fi hip-hop music they played in the background or the comfort of sitting on the bed or going outside to complete the activity. In a forthcoming article I co-authored with Ph.D. candidate Laura March, we present findings that aren’t shocking: graduate students are inflicted with a heightened sense of perfectionism and desire for clear-cut assignments and deliverables. In other words, having open-ended projects generates uncertainty and anxiety. The anxiety around learning something new while being on a seemingly open stage like a classroom is stress-inducing in normal times, let alone during a pandemic.
The benefit of turning off the camera’s gaze in my remote class extended to the way students customized their own learning environment: a personalized learning space that helped allay the anxieties of acquiring a new skill like how to 3-D model a nameplate on TinkerCAD. Sometimes students opted to leave their cameras on but kept their creations out of the camera’s view. That, too, was a powerful demonstration of how they chose to be present and viewed in our shared space.
As a researcher who examines equity and inclusion in STEM-rich learning environments like makerspaces, I am often thinking about what makes a learning environment inviting to underrepresented student communities. The macro features of a learning environment are important. Lights, color, furniture and the organization thereof are clear variables to consider. But as my research from my National Science Foundation CAREER grant is showing, the X factor of a space isn’t always visible to the eye. Instead, it’s visceral; it’s affective, or as participants in the study have noted, it’s “good vibes.” Whether it’s a classroom or a makerspace, a room’s configuration offers important information about the purpose, values and intended audience of the room.
This is tricky because each student has their own needs and taste. It isn’t possible to customize a classroom for each student. However, I’m beginning to realize that the end goal isn’t to have a customized learning space for every student. Instead, we should aim to make the most of existing spaces — like their homes — where students feel comfortable and safe to build their confidence in learning new skills.
The importance of diverting the gaze could be understood alongside the continuing pushback against open-concept work environments. The appeal of the open-concept environment extended from the workplace to the makerspace. But the problems with an open-stage environment outweighed the perceived benefits. It didn’t promote cross-pollination of ideas. It heightened spotlight bias where people felt like they were being watched or assessed. That also led people to be more private and to take their conversations to Slack or outside the space.
The perception of being watched is amplified for marginalized genders and BIPOC students in a makerspace — a space originally imagined by a narrow demographic of mostly affluent white engineers. It’s a space where we are constantly asked whether we belong (yes, I’ve been asked if I was lost on numerous occasions) or to prove again that we did, in fact, 3-D print an object.
While being home during the pandemic, students created their own comfortable and safe learning environments without the stress of being watched. Even in instances where students are living with family or roommates, the stakes are different when learning within a known community with familiar norms. To be sure, some students are living in unsafe home environments and/or share space with family members who are competing for bandwidth and physical space. Moreover, I am not advocating for sustained isolated learning. The pandemic continues to reveal the toll that isolation has taken on the existing, enduring mental health crises in America.
Instead, I am calling for multiple approaches to encourage student learning beyond an “open stage” environment. I’m calling for a disruption of the way learning is viewed — literally. I want us to question why we have such a persistent desire to “see learning” in a makerspace or classroom. I want us to figuratively and literally turn off the gaze when it’s not needed. As we opt for classrooms and makerspaces that are more inclusive, we should create ways for students to choose how they want to be seen in the classroom.